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First Look: Tim Burton at MoMA

Indiewire By Brian Brooks | Indiewire November 17, 2009 at 9:2AM

"It's been really a special thing for me, is there a doctor here?" Tim Burton joked with the audience this morning at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "I want him to check and see if I'm dead. It's been a real out of body experience."
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"It's been really a special thing for me, is there a doctor here?" Tim Burton joked with the audience this morning at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "I want him to check and see if I'm dead. It's been a real out of body experience."

MoMA gave a sneak peek at the Tim Burton exhibition, a major retrospective that the venerable institution is hosting from November 22 - April 6. The show, the largest monographic undertaking in the history of the museum, brings together 700 pieces of Burton's sketches, concept art, drawings, paintings, photographs as well as a selection of his amateur films. Additionally, the exhibit includes a look back at Burton's 27 years as a professional filmmaker as well as a related series of films that influenced and inspired Burton.

"We feel incredibly privileged to have 700 examples of rarely or never seen images," said MoMA Director Glenn Lowry, during comments today. "The exhibition populates almost every space of the museum. Tim has been incredibly generous in allowing the curators in to see how his mind works. We're the first institution to exhibit a majority of this work."

Entering the Tim Burton exhibition at MoMA. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE
Untitled (Sally parts) and Untitled (Sally heads), 1993 by Tim Burton. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE
Untitled (Christmas) by Tim Burton, 1997. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Lowry said that MoMA was founded on the premise that modern art did not just encompass painting and sculpture. He described film as a distinctive 20th century art form, which the museum celebrates along with other mediums. Pixar, Universal and other companies have had MoMA exhibitions in addition to individual filmmakers as Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock and others.

"Blue Clown" by Tim Burton. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

"You have a way of bringing up the darkest moments, yet you're able to do it with humor and fun," Lowry said to Burton. Even if much of the individual imagery will be new to Burton fans, the overall style for many of the pieces will be familiar. Paintings, sketches and sculpture inspired by "A Nightmare Before Christmas" is plentiful, while "Edward Scissorhands" is also ubiquitous in the collection.

Tim Burton sculpture. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE
Trick or Treat by Tim Burton. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Psychedelic monsters and gothic iconography are consistent themes along with animation and science fiction. Burton, according to MoMA's introduction outside the exhibition, "never felt at home" in Burbank, California where he was born in August, 1958. But with his imagination, he consoled himself from his sunny middle-class surroundings, drawing on "humor and an interest in visual media, popular entertainment, comics, advertising, greeting cards, children's literature, toys, monster movies, carnival sideshows, performance art and holiday rituals incluing the art of the Mexican Day of the Dead as inspiration.

To assemble the collection, MoMA scoured the archives at 20th Century Fox and, acccording to Ron Magliozi, Assistant Curator, Department of Film at MoMA, they had free reign inside Burton's home and personal archive to select work.

The introductory section of the MoMA's Special Exhibition Gallery consists of what it calls a "grand salon-style" installation of Burton's character and creature studies on paper and canvas from the 1980s and 1990s. Next, ephemera, school projects and early drawings from Burton's childhood in Burbank are displayed and his Super 8mm films from the 1970s, shot in neighborhood backyards with his childhood friends are there for the showing, including "The Island of Dr. Agor" (1971), "Houdini: The Untold Story" (1971) and "Stalk of the Celebrity Monster" (1979), an animated short that Burton submitted as his graduation project at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

Burton's later work is displayed in the section, "Beautifying Burbank," which covers his two years at CalArts and his four years working as an animator at the Walt Disney Studios. His signature style emerged at this time, including creature-based notions of character, masking and what MoMA calls "body modification." In "Beyond Burbank," Burton's work from his professional career are displayed. In this phase, there are a number of collaborations, including those with costume designer Colleen Atwood, special effects artist Stan Winston and stop-motion puppet craftsmen Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders, as well as the character design studio of Carlos Grangel. This area of the retrospective contains important examples of their work, supplemented by studio loans from Disney, Warner Bros., and the Twentieth Century Fox archives. Burton's graphic art and texts from his non-film projects are also included in this time period.

"We knew about this a year ago - the stars aligned and it's perfect for our brand evolution," Dave Howe, President of Syfy, which is a sponsor of the exhibition, told indieWIRE following introductory remarks. "Burton epitomizes what we want to achieve as a brand. He's a genius, but he does [his work] in a way that's absolutely accessible. He uses adult themes, but in such creative and funny ways." Howe went on to say that his network would like to occupy the "entire landscape of SciFi, including paranormal, action-adventure, Fantasy, thriller etc., and credited Burton for achieving that evolution.

Edward Scissorhands with Batman mask sculptures by Tim Burton. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Tim Burton was at MoMA back in late July to talk about the upcoming exhibit, which was formally announced earlier this year.

"In my life, I've had many surreal great things happen - meeting Vincent Price, being able to make movies - and this one, I think, tops it," said Burton. "In the sense that it's the most amazing and surreal. And that's what you look for in life, is these great, incredible moments." Burton went on to thank the museum, including Magliozzi and Jenny He, Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Film.

"Believe me," he concluded, "You've actually helped me more than you know in terms of getting my act together."

MoMA's Tim Burton exhibition opens this Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.) in Manhattan. For more information, please visit the MoMA website.

More photos from today's Tim Burton exhibition preview are available on Eugene Hernandez's blog.